Elders involved in the New South Wales Youth Koori Court say remote and regional areas must not be ignored as the state government extends a city trial of the Indigenous youth justice program.
It has promised additional funding for the program in Sydney, but has postponed acting on recommendations from a state inquiry for regional expansion.
This year's state budget allocated $2.7 million over three years to expand the Parramatta-based pilot program for young offenders to the Surry Hills Children's Court.
In a statement to NITV News, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the funding also provided for evaluation and any expansion would be reliant on evidence of success.
"The over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system is a major concern to the NSW government," he said.
But there are currently no plans in place for regional expansion, and an adult Koori court proposal - known as 'Walama Court' - is still being considered.
"However the government’s justice initiatives in the last year are capable of reducing reoffending among Indigenous offenders on a far greater scale than the proposed Walama Court would," the Attorney-General said.
"The extensive sentencing reforms will allow more Aboriginal offenders to receive supervised sentences and interventions in the community that target the causes of reoffending."
This approach goes against key recommendations in a report released this month from a NSW inquiry into drug and rehabilitation services in regional areas.
"Our mob are getting incarcerated for reasons that can be fixed.”
The inquiry, which investigated the ‘misery’ caused by alcohol and drug addictions in rural NSW, urged adult and youth Koori Court programs to be trialled in regional areas of the state for a 12-month period.
Koori Courts allow Elders to sit on round-table hearings with magistrates and police, and are only available to Indigenous offenders who plead guilty.
Through the program, sentences can be deferred for up to six to 12 months to help the Indigenous youth access support pathways away from incarceration.
NSW has only trialled the youth court, with 92 young Aboriginal offenders having participated at the end of May, but the program has been rolled out more extensively in other parts of the country.
Victoria operates 10 such courts for adults and children with several located in regional areas, despite the state having a much smaller Indigenous population.
Kamilaroi Elder Uncle Rex Sorby has been involved in the NSW Koori Court trial, which he says is proving just as successful as Victoria’s program.
“It helps them because they feel wanted when we are there, [otherwise sometimes] they don’t feel like they get a fair deal,” he said.
Uncle Rex said offenders in rural areas of NSW who could be helped by Koori Court diversion programs are being left behind.
“It needs to be extended into regional areas because the kids can’t come to Sydney, they’re forgotten. Dubbo is somewhere they could do it, or Moree and Wollongong.”
In Dubbo almost 15 per cent of the rural town’s population is Indigenous, according to the ABS.
Aboriginal Legal Service Chair Bunja Smith said areas with high Indigenous populations are exactly where Koori Courts are most needed.
“By introducing cultural appropriateness into the justice system I believe we will see reduced offending as well as reduced recidivism,” he said.
“We’re proving it in the youth courts that we’re currently running.”
'Incarceration rate ballooning'
Chair of the Aboriginal Legal Service Chair Bunja Smith told NITV News action to expand the courts is urgently needed to address the systemic challenges driving overwhelming Indigenous incarceration rates.
“The incarceration rate is ballooning, it’s absolutely shocking, If intervention does not occur, we will see the majority of our people in incarceration,” he said.
Mr Smith said evidence shows the courts are reducing the number of days young people spend in detention by helping resolve underlying issues.
“It’s a wicked problem and someone has to deal with it now, our mob are getting incarcerated for reasons that can be fixed,” he said.
He said factors that trigger re-offending include housing insecurity, inadequate education, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and feelings of disconnection with Indigenous culture.
“You have to take a holistic approach [and tackle] the social issues if we want to reduce the number of people coming into the criminal justice system.”
Uncle Greg Simms has worked with the Parramatta Children’s Court where the Koori Court youth program has been trialled.
Uncle Greg said Koori Courts make sure Indigenous voices are heard, particularly young offenders, who may be vulnerable in the criminal justice system.
“We’re in there as Aboriginal Elders to support those kids, to make sure that they are protected,” he said.
He said the courts deter those at risk of jail time away from criminal behaviour more successfully than traditional courts.
“Once they start going to juvenile justice then there getting grilled for the big house… we don’t want that to happen.”
He supports expansion of the program but says Koori Courts alone are not the answer.
“The community has got to wake up and realise what’s happening, it’s everyone’s business to find out what happens to kids in our communities.”